Dr Ambedkar gave two big jolts to the 20th century caste-Hindu society. One was leading the mass conversion of his Mahar people to Buddhism in 1956 and the earlier one, in 1927 when he was still Hindu, was the burning of the Manu Smriti.
It started with a peaceful Satyagraha in Mahad in coastal Maharashtra, where the untouchables were denied access to water from a tank. Upper castes filed multiple court cases arguing that the tank was private property and could be restricted. Ambedkar seems to have lost his faith in the system and the upper castes, primarily Brahmins, and began pondering the reasons for their refusal to change.
Dr Ambedkar believed that the ancient Hindu law text Manu Smriti, by bestowing great powers on Brahmins and endorsing the Varna system and other inequalities, created conditions that made untouchability a sad reality of India. In burning Manu Smriti, he was hoping to attack the problem at its source.
Now comes the crucial question, was it a correct assignment of blame?
Across the length and breadth of the country we know that the Hindu society and the Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Lingayat*, Christian, and even Muslim societies that run parallel to it have (or have had) a caste system. Is India’s unique caste system a creation of (or an institution buttressed by) the Manu Smriti?
For example, is it because their Hindu ancestors read Manu Smriti morning, evening and for lunch that the Tamil Nadar Christians refused Tamil Scheduled Caste Christians entry into their churches? Is it because of Manu Smriti that a Bengali washerman doesn’t normally marry a Bengali fisher(wo)man?
I would say, respectfully, NO.
- Manu Smriti itself doesn’t talk of untouchability, much less endorse it – the object of Babasaheb’s main focus.
- Manu Smriti’s dictates were freely flouted. For example Manu forbids marriage between close relatives. But in South India and amongst the speakers of Dravidian languages, marriage between cross-cousins and even cross-uncle and niece is known to happen. When his dictates flouted customary law, Manu was not listened to.
- Almost everybody confounds the Varna system – what Manu talks about – with the Jati system – India’s reality . A washerman’s caste doesn’t marry from a fisherman’s caste or a plumber caste doesn’t marry from a carpenter caste even though all belong to the same Varna. Nor would a Konkanastha historically marry a Sarasvat from the same Varna.
- How does one explain such phenomenon as all Hindus of Pakistan (outside of a few traders) being scheduled castes? How can Pakistan with no caste Hindus have scheduled castes?
- Similarly, how can Sri Lanka with no Brahmins among Sinhala Buddhists and a very small number of Brahmins among Tamil Hindus have a caste system?
- Manu Smriti is revered in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma. It forms the basis of Thailand’s traditional law Thammasat. Yet these countries never had India-style caste system. How could they read the same book and not come up with Indian caste system? The answer is the root of the caste system is not in the book.
Much as I admire Dr Ambedkar for his struggles against as an entrenched system, I don’t think it is correct to hold this book responsible for the genesis of the entrenched system. That is because Hindus are simply not a people of the book.
* putting Lingayat separate since their founders were opposed to it